The Vampire Interviews I: Olivia Hill
I interviewed Tokyo-based game developer, author and radical leftist Olivia Hill during the research process for an upcoming textbook chapter on the Vampire role playing games from White Wolf. Olivia’s responses roamed far across the process of developing tabletop games and the history of the Vampire line, and I share them here with her consent.
To begin with, let’s talk Gothic-Punk: do you see it as an evolution of a wider, long-term Gothic tradition, or a product of the 1990s cultural circumstances, or as a collection of what the developers over time have deemed relevant to the project, or… something else that I haven’t thought of?
Hill: There's a complex relationship with games and who defines them. As far as where a game comes from, that's maybe half up to the designers, and half up to the people playing the game. They both shape what defines a game. This is to say, it doesn't really matter what the designers thought they were doing, any more than it matters to the players what they were doing. Games have a much more dramatic form of "Death of the Author," because the onus for content creation is heavily shifted toward the players.
On the designers' side, I think Vampire's Gothic-Punk is a product of its time and location. The Vampire core rulebook featured Gary, Indiana as a signature setting, and their offices were in rural Georgia. Goth culture was relatively waning, and focused heavily in more chic cultural centres like Los Angeles, London, and New York. That wasn't early White Wolf. The material pulled heavily from Anne Rice's books, but this wasn't at the height of her success after Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, this was well after Queen of the Damned and moving into a popularity slump. In a lot of ways, Vampire's design was a sort of costume party pulled from hipper places and cooler times. Which in a way is as iconic as a vampire game could ever be, intentional or not.
Games take a while to make, and despite performing well initially, its appeal outside specific game industry audiences didn't really start to happen until the game's second edition. Goth culture was becoming more mainstream every day. Nine Inch Nails was paving the way for Marilyn Manson. Hot Topic became a mall staple, no matter how much people want to pretend there's no overlap between Hot Topic stores and Vampire fans. It's no coincidence that in the early 1990s, Hot Topic began heavily marketing goth and punk subcultures hand-in-hand. There was, mind the cheekiness, a hunger. People wanted to dive into this weird culture that was becoming mainstream culture, and there's nothing that lets you dive into culture with more immediacy than literally playing a role. This was an era where about five times as many people owned Misfits shirts as had ever heard the band; people wanted the opportunity for that aesthetic.
Hot Topic didn't pioneer that. Vampire didn't pioneer that. The people, the culture pioneered that. Media makers helped to foster it. It wasn't the goth from the early 80s New Wave records quoted on Vampire pages. It was this sort of dark mirror to the colourful world of the early 90s, with its quirky Seinfeld and saccharine Full House and its inane Friends. It was raw and loud and scary. It wasn't Gothic to be Gothic. It was Gothic because that WAS punk in that time.
Then: How do you feel Vampire goes about making its Gothic credentials concrete and real to players? I’m particularly interested in mechanics here - which aspects of the game create a Gothic ‘feel’ when people are sat down at the table, playing the game.
In all honesty, I don't think Vampire's game-play mechanics really do much to deliver a feel I could call "Gothic" in the sense that I think Vampire is supposed to be Gothic. If your presumption is of dated Christian morality, then its Humanity system does a good job of enforcing a very narrow idea of good and bad, which unsubtly hits players over the head. While this received some minor degree of nuance later on, the game's ideas of what makes a "human" and what makes a "monster" are very juvenile, and not sufficiently contemplative enough to evoke "Gothic" in my opinion.
In a lot of ways, Vampire rejected a lot of the sensualism that defined Gothic literature. For example, most editions very explicitly had vampires unable to take pleasure from sex and their emotions were frequently described as deadened. This, to me, is the opposite of the Gothic tradition, where exaggerated expressions of humanity make the narratives compelling. The best mechanic that I found emphasised Gothic themes was the Nature/Demeanour rules, which gave characters a sort of "hidden self" and a "face you show the world."
And finally: V5 [the latest edition of Vampire: the Masquerade] aligns the Gothic-Punk with prior editions. I wondered if you had any insight about why that point was made, and if V5 is consciously trying to distance itself from something in the tradition?
From what I can tell, V5 isn't really meant to be "Vampire but in 2018." It's not made to represent any larger cultural movement, be it of the 1990s or otherwise. It's very much a game meant to attract and bring back a specific audience of the previous editions. It's the grizzled old police officer one day from retirement trying to get one last case under his belt in a gritty 90s thriller. It's in an odd position because it's trying to emulate something that was trying to emulate a cultural movement that wasn't even that topical at its time. In essence, it's trying to be a game from the early 1990s which was riding on a very era-specific cultural movement that didn't last particularly long. I don't know if there's a "right way" to do that, but it oozes that design intention. It's very "what if it was 1991 again and we were making this game again, with the assumption that it was already made?" It communicates that well, if that's its intention.